“I learned a ton…that will make me a better instructor.”

-SGM (Ret.) Kyle E. Lamb, Author of Green Eyes & Black Rifles

The photo is an actual picture of my neighbor’s front door, just like I found it when I came home a few days ago. There’s one set of questions here, the ones that usually get asked in these types of situations. They usually go along the lines of “What would you do?”

We aren’t going to ask those questions. As this is an article aimed at professional instructors, we’ll assume that we all can cobble together a tactically sound and reasonable solution to this problem, as applied to our own individual lives and situations. Instead, we are going to ask a pair of more important questions, at least for this audience.  

“What would your students do?” And, 

“How would your training have influenced this?”

Before we go further, let’s point out that not every training session, or even training program, is intended to address or improve tactical decision-making. And that’s perfectly ok. EVERY program, technique, method, tactic, etc. has limitations. All of them. Just know the limitations and make sure that your students do too, along with the objectives of your training.

With that said, many programs and courses do, in fact, have components that involve teaching tactical decision-making skills. These include such things as use-of-force, situational awareness, and conflict avoidance. Personally, we believe that good decision-making is the single most important component of operational success in the field or on the street. Hard skills (such as shooting, driving, fighting etc.) are critically important; decision-making is more so.

We’ll assume here that your training program (or at least one of your training programs) involves developing decision-making skills.

How do you do it?

How do you teach other people to make good tactical decisions?

Do you talk? Of course you do.  

More importantly, how much do you talk?

Whenever I think of teaching people to make good decisions for operational outcomes, I always think of the Operations Officer at one of my commands in the military (a warship). We were involved in training exercises and there was some event or another requiring some manner of personal discretion and decision-making that the individual sailors were involved in. It’s been so long ago that I don’t even remember what it was.

I do remember that it was something of a big deal at the time, so much so that the Operations Officer declared that he would “personally train” the sailors involved.

When the training took place, he gathered the 40 or so folks involved on the main deck of the ship, up on the bow. He then proceeded read, verbatim, from a piece of paper.  

I was standing near to the front, off to the side, and I could barely hear what he was saying. A quick glance at the gaggle of men in front of him quickly showed that they couldn’t hear very well either. The ones in the back couldn’t hear at all.

“OPS” finished reading his training, half-heartedly asked if there were any questions, and, receiving no response, walked off, apparently satisfied that his training was completed successfully.

Needless to say, things didn’t exactly go as hoped for once it came time for execution.

After the event, the Captain was none too happy about the performance and was looking for an explanation. The Operations Officer was indignant and pointed in his response. The fault must lie with the sailors not putting in the right effort. After all, he exclaimed (with genuine, heartfelt sincerity I might add), “I personally trained them.”

Viewed from the outside through this medium, we are all probably shaking our heads. Marines are certainly engaging in some sort of internal monologue about the Navy in general and the surface fleet in particular. Every enlisted person reading this is commenting to themselves about officers making easy stuff hard or something similar. In short, everybody is getting a little laugh at his expense. However, this may not be entirely fair. How many of us have done (or even still do) the same thing when we teach?

Sure, we may not read verbatim from a piece of paper, but we might read off a long series of power point slides. Or we might just talk. A lot.

Hopefully you’re noticing a theme.

There’s nothing wrong with talking. It’s an important part of delivering effective training. But talking too much – that can sometimes be just as bad as saying nothing at all. (Before going farther allow me to confess that I’m as guilty as anybody about having done this, especially in years past – and I still have to fight myself off a soapbox from time to time).

So why is this important? How does our method of delivery (like talking too much) affect the students’ learning ability?  

Let’s look at a few principles that can provide some insight.

We wrote an earlier article addressing the common training myth that “everyone has their own learning style.” In it, and in Building Shooters, we discuss some of the limitations of the short-term memory system as it relates to consistently receiving information after it has passed through the brain’s natural information filter.

Without getting overly repetitive or scientific in this article, basically what you say as an instructor and what your students actually hear can be two different things. When this happens, regardless of how brilliant your words are, if the student hears something else—how does it help them? And, in fact, depending on what they hear, it could potentially even harm them.

Principle one:  Just because you said it doesn’t mean they heard it.

There’s a second concept we’re going to look at and that’s the limitation of short-term (for this application often called “working”) memory, specifically with respect to cognitive verbal interactions. 

There is a classic paper written by Harvard Psychologist George Miller that outlines what is now a commonly accepted principle of developmental psychology. Specifically, that the number of discreet pieces of cognitive information the brain is capable of managing at any given time is about seven (7).  

In other words. You can dazzle people with brilliant, life-saving information but, even if they hear it, they may not actually be capable of learning it.

This brings us to principle two:  Just because they heard it, doesn’t mean that they can learn it.

There’s a final principal we’re going to address. We’ll start with another example. Some years ago I was working on a small protective team overseas. I was informally filling a training role at the time, so I set up a series of “tabletop” exercises designed to flex our coordination and decision-making abilities, as individuals and as a team.

During one of these exercises, a team vehicle was broken down and being approached from a single direction by gun trucks and hostile parties on foot. I asked the team member going through the exercise to make a decision regarding what he was going to do.

The team member was well-educated, and had read a great deal about the environment we were working in. What I got in response to the hypothetical scenario was a detailed history of the different militia groups operating in the area, their political motivations, political connections, religious and political loyalties…and then I stopped the exercise – it was going nowhere productive. This was all really cool information. This individual had learned a lot about the area we were in. It was certainly relevant to operating in our environment. However, it was totally irrelevant to the decision at hand.

This brings us to principle three: Just because they learned it, doesn’t mean it will help them.

With these principles in mind, how effective do you think your passionate, educated, and long-winded pontification, chock full of detailed knowledge, is at helping your students make what could be a tough decision under stress at some unknown point in the future?

If the principles we’ve outline above are even halfway correct, probably not very. You cannot talk somebody into proficiency.

So, if simply talking a lot isn’t necessarily the right answer, how do we go about helping our students develop good decision-making skills?

Anybody who has read much of our material, especially Building Shooters, knows that we like using models to understand systems. We don’t do this because our models (or anybody else’s models) for inherently complex systems such as brain function or dynamic critical incidents are perfect, all-encompassing tools. They aren’t. Like everything else, they have limitations. We do it because models provide us a common framework around which to contextualize and therefore better understand information and how it all fits together.

Think of models like shelves for information. Without the shelves, you end up with a jumbled mess on the floor. If you have a line of labeled shelves though, the same pile of stuff is going to not only look neater, it’s going to be better organized, easier to find, and more useful.

So, you guessed it, we’re going to use a model (actually several) to understand (as instructors) what it is we are actually trying to do and how to do it. As this article is aimed at instructors, we’re going to dive fairly deep.

Our basic subject matter is potential use-of-force situations involving primarily a human threat so let’s start by making some “shelves” to help us organize the information. When describing these types of situations, we like using a simple model borrowed from the Navy called the “Detect to Engage Sequence.” 

In modern naval combat, everything tends to happen really fast. (Supersonic missiles speed things up.) Ships have a series of sensors on them. For every engagement, whether offensive or defensive, the first element of the engagement is realizing that there’s a potential threat or enemy located in a specific location or direction. This is called detection.

Once the threat (or potential threat) is detected, there is then some sort of discrimination process involved with figuring out what it is and making a decision. Then, various tools are employed to target the threat and, finally, the ship’s weapons are used to engage it.

A similar process occurs in personal use-of-force related incidents, so we can apply the same basic model. Before we use any level of force, we first must know there’s a problem (detection). Once we know this, there’s some sort of deliberation/discrimination process that follows. Then, if things go bad, there’s employment of a weapon and perhaps an engagement. Detect to engage – our first model.

Often in training, especially on ranges, we tend to treat engagements as spontaneous events, or foregone conclusions in scenarios. While not impossible, this is very rarely the case in the real world. Use-of-force is part of a much bigger process. Every event starts with detection; not every event has to end with an engagement. And, sometimes, what happens in the middle can be critical for determining the outcome.

This brings us to another model.

Most readers of this article have probably heard of Col. John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Many of you probably teach it. For any who haven’t heard of it, it’s an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. In more engineering based terminology, it’s a decision-making feedback loop. In practical terms, it’s what our brains do in response to stimuli. We intake a stimulus through one of our five senses, we figure out what the heck it means, we make a decision regarding what we’re going to do about it, then we take action – and then the process repeats itself.  

During any hostile hostile encounter, we are going to continuously work through the OODA Loop as things in the environment change and new stimuli are introduced or disappear.

In dangerous situations, three things are going to increase the chances of survival. 1) Making “good” decisions. 2) Making them faster than the other guy. 3) Excelling in our execution of action. (When it’s a fight – speed, surprise, and violence of action will often carry the day.) In other words, speeding up the OODA Loop gives us a better chance to not only survive, but to thrive in hostile situations.

We’re looking just at decision-making in this article, so let’s assume we’ve already detected a problem. (This should not be interpreted as any commentary on lowering the importance of situational awareness skills; those just aren’t what this article is about.) 

 Let’s also assume that our ability to act (our physical skill and action execution) is a constant, which it kind of is. We can train to make it better, but after stimulus detection occurs in the real world – you are where you are at that particular moment in time.

This leaves us with orientation and decision-making. And, in truth, these are the two that cause the real problems – as in get people killed. Why? Because they slow us down. Recall my team member? That scenario put him in a bad place where nobody wants to ever be. It left him trying to process a massive volume of useless information, looking for something that would give him the right data to make a good decision.  

He was sorting through the data looking for the answer to a problem – a problem that didn’t have a great answer. Welcome to the real world. Out here, they often don’t. Also, we often don’t have “enough” information to be absolutely sure about the decisions. Yet, we still have to make them.

And, like we’ve already discussed, the faster we do so, and the better we execute our actions, the better chance we have to survive.

So how do we speed this process up? How do we speed up the OODA Loop within the detect to engage sequence?

Let’s look at two methods, both of which should be used. 

First, we want to reduce the iterations of the OODA Loop that occur. In other words, we want to reduce the number of potential decision points.

Looking back at my team member in the scenario, it’s important to understand that with every piece of information that he accessed, looking for “the answer,” he actually had to make a decision.  

He had to pull up that information (roughly equivalent to stimulus/observation – it’s not exact but it fits on the shelf). He had to analyze it for relevance (orientation). He had to make a decision about whether or not he was going to use it. Then, if not, he had to discard that information from his thought process (action).  

That’s not all. Then he received a minor stress generating stimulus from me, “C’mon man, what are you doing to do?” (Observation.) Then he had to analyze and orient that stimulus (Do I look bad to the team here? What’s going to be better, saying something I’m unsure about or continuing to think about this?). Then he needed to make a decision (do I make an actual decision or do I analyze more data so I make the “right” one?). Then he had to act (pull up more data).

And then the process repeated itself – over and over and over again. Getting the picture? Lots of information processing was going on. Lots of decisions were being made. But none of this brain activity was actually relevant to solving the problem.

If you’ve ever seen somebody stammering with the classic “deer in the headlights” look, frozen by inaction, there’s a good chance that this is why. Their brain may have been caught in a feedback loop – processing useless information and looking for answers.  

You’ve probably heard the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes” related to near death experiences. Believe it or not, there appears to be some real scientific validity to it. The brain is programmed to survive. When survival is in doubt, the brain starts looking for information that can change the outcome.

In a hostile or threatening environment, brain freeze and processing of massive volumes of information looking for a solution isn’t optimal – but it’s what the brain is likely to naturally do if there isn’t an answer or solution to the problem available. We all know that this isn’t likely to produce good results, and it’s certainly not what we want to deliver as trainers.  

We want to build something better and much more efficient, something far more likely to contribute to the students’ success and survival in a hostile environment (preferably without use-of-force for most domestic (CONUS) applications). We want to build for our students a functional system for stimulus response that reduces the amount of information they need to process, not the other way around.  

One way to do this is to reduce the amount of information that the brain associates as relevant to threatening environments within a “detect to engage” scenario. In other words, less is more.

We’ll talk about how to actually accomplish this in a moment.

The second alternative for shortening the OODA Loop is, to the extent possible, to remove the need to orient or decide. This facilitates movement directly from observation (stimulus recognition) to action. The orientation and decision-making are both done ahead of time. When done successfully, observation leads directly to action. This eliminates the time sucking steps of orientation and decision-making, both of which are extremely difficult under the brain-altering physiological effects of the stress response.

We just covered a lot so let’s recap quickly. We want to make decisions faster. In order to make this happen, we want to give the brain LESS to do. We will facilitate this for our students by helping create a psychological infrastructure, or “model” that does two things. 

1) Reduces the number of decisions that need to be made.  

2) Analyzes and orients the relationships between common stimuli and contexts and pre-makes decisions for situations when those conditions are encountered.  

Now let’s talk about how to actually do this – as an instructor. Remember, we can’t just talk people into proficiency.  

First, as the instructor, recognize that not every person is going to (or should) make the same decisions. A 4’10”, 90lb woman has different use-of-force considerations than a 6’3”, 250lb man. A mother with three children in tow has different things to consider than a woman alone. A security guard has different considerations than a police officer. A police officer on duty may need to make different decisions than a police officer off-duty and out with their family, and so on. The point is that, while you can act as a guide, you can’t necessarily dictate everyone’s individual decisions, especially if you want them all to be the same. They won’t be.

Second, help people individually build a psychological model for detect to engage environments. The model should reduce, to the maximum extent possible, the relevant information and brain function required. You, again, can act as a guide here (as can organizational policy) but the student needs to generate and internalized the model for themselves. You cannot talk them into it.

Third, with the objective of moving towards building this mental model, challenge people to clearly define their “mission”. Conflicting objectives, or confusion about what the primary objective may be is one of the biggest challenges to good decision-making under stress.

For example, taking a step back into the critical-threat protective operations world, what’s the right answer to leaving your teammates to potentially die or staying “on the X” with the principal instead of getting them to safety?

This isn’t a question with a “right” answer; both answers are wrong.  

Nevertheless, it’s a real question that real people need to answer every day. If the primary objective is consciously defined, ahead of time, as the life of the principal – with all else being secondary – the decision is easy. In fact, it’s no longer even a decision and any and all information related to why one might be more important than the other at a given point in time becomes operationally irrelevant. This means that there is no need for this information to be processed. If there’s a question, you take the principal to safety. Period. Conversely, if the priority is pre-set that you will get everybody out or nobody at all – it’s just as easy (and also no longer a decision).

In the lives of your students, what’s more important, their physical well-being or their car? Their physical well-being or their wallet, or computer / cell phone? Their physical well-being or the physical well-being of their spouse? The physical well-being of their spouse or the physical well-being of their child? Do personal priorities dictate getting the child to safety at all costs or is the whole family getting to safety or nobody at all? There’s not a “right” answer here, only two wrong answers – but it’s a real question and it’s important.

Defining personal objectives, or mission precedence as it might be called in the military planning process, is a critical step towards establishing the psychological infrastructure (model) for success.

Fourth, again in pursuit of the development of this mental model, help the students establish a mental framework that is sometimes termed “priorities of work” in professional environments. The last step we talked about was establishing a precedence of objective. This step is about establishing a precedence of method. In a defensive / security environment for civilians, our standard framework is avoid, deter, delay and finally defend (use-of-force). This isn’t the only framework, it’s just the one we usually prefer to use in these environments. 

In an offensive (or other) environment, this may well be different. The point here is not about tactics, it’s about the importance of defining the right aspects of the mental model.

Fifth, help the students understand both the potential stimuli (or types of stimuli) and their potential reactions – then pre-make some decisions for immediate action. As an industry we often like to make things more complex than they really need to be. We certainly believe that here’s a time and a place for a lot of detail and analysis (obviously). We don’t believe that it’s while under stress in a hostile environment.

Here’s an example (not the only example or option for action) for an individual person alone. Does the stimulus have the potential to hurt me in any way? If yes, no matter what the actual stimulus is, immediately physically move out of the area to avoid it leaving anything not attached to the body behind.

With this example, we’ve covered just about every potential type of stimulus from a rowdy person or group of people, to a welding operation, to the sounds of gunfire, to an alarm of unknown origin going off somewhere in a building. As soon as the potential for harm is perceived, there’s no further analysis or decision-making required. The only decision is, “Can this possibly hurt me – yes or no?” 

The level of injury isn’t relevant, the cause of the injury isn’t relevant, the potential outcomes aren’t relevant, other environmental stimuli (such as who else is there) aren’t relevant. It’s a simple yes / no and the corresponding action is immediate. It requires no real thought – it’s been pre-determined.

Sixth, facilitate practice for your students – with repetition. There are a lot of tools out there for putting together realistic and complex scenarios that include application of force and lots of stress. These are awesome tools. They are also not exclusively necessary for practicing decision-making in a training environment. In fact, these might not even be the best tools with which to start practicing decision-making. The only thing that is necessary is to make the students make decisions.  

You can do this while they sit at a desk, in a classroom. 

After students have created their model – perhaps in concert with organizational policy and priorities – make them apply it. Present a simple scenario. Make them respond; this can be as simple as writing their immediate action on a notecard. The scenario doesn’t have to be extremely detailed either. It doesn’t need to have a ton of intricate detail and a mountain of data. We don’t want the students to process a mountain of data; we want them to make sound decisions quickly with the absolute minimum amount of thinking necessary.

This article is very long, and has touched on some complex issues. 

It is aimed at developing a deeper understanding of the factors involved in the tactical decision-making process – among instructors. In contrast, engagement with students on this subject (especially in limited resource training environments for beginners) should be the opposite. Rather than being extremely detailed and complex, it should be broad-stroked and simple.

Instructors need to understand fully what we are doing and why. 

If we look at the world of physics for an example, E=MC^2 is the mathematical expression of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This simple equation fundamentally altered mankind’s understanding of concepts such as matter, energy, time, and space. 

The equation is simple. Proving it is not.

To apply this equation (where we want our entry-level students to be), you need to know some very basic math and the value for the speed of light in a vacuum. However, to really understand this equation – to be able to teach it effectively – you need to understand where it comes from, why, and how to generate it.

We (instructors) need nuanced and detailed complexity in our level of understanding. This helps assure that we give our students good information that meets their needs. In contrast, our students need frameworks of generalized simplicity that streamline their mental processing under stress.  

In conclusion, understanding and adhering to the principles outlined in this article can help instructors develop decision-making skills in a way that works – for the student. Talking a lot and putting out a ton of information may not be helpful. It may even be harmful.  

Instead, we advocate facilitating the students’ individual development of a psychological framework. This should facilitate reduction of the number and types of decisions required in hostile environments and streamline the OODA Loop during threatening situations.

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Executive Director, Force Science Institute
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